Now and then someone has said they enjoy reading about the general details of my world, and that has led me to think that I should do a relevant post. Hold on, because it is my intention to do this for awhile. I don't have any specific goal in mind ... I thought for awhile I would just talk about the world, how it is inter-related, any details about D&D that occur to me and so on.
I suppose the best place to begin would be the island of Zakynthos, where my online party is at the moment. The one island is very much not the whole world ... but it is as good a place to start as any. See, it is as difficult to box my world neatly as it is to box world history - every event bleeds endlessly into so many other events, there's no method that will fence in any part.
More or less, I'll just describe my general assessment of the world, without reaching for any previously created content or historical research. I'll skip assigning a link to everything ... that would take too long. Most every capitalized item of the below should have a wikipedia entry.
Zakynthos is under the authroity of the seagoing power Venice, which has been waning for almost a century now, particularly since the Battle of Lepanto - which did happen, though of course it involved spellcasters blowing things up and conjured monsters rising up from the sea and crushing ships, that sort of thing. Venice's overall strength has been sapped primarily by the events going on it northern Italy, where city states under the control of the Pope fight with France, Spain and Hapsburg Austria, all trying to seize maximum control there (the eastern and western branches of the Hapsburgs have more or less come to a complete severing by this point). Venice's biggest problem is Austria, which is always pushing for a firm control over the north Adriatic - they have the ports of Fiume and Trieste, but of course there's no such thing as enough. Not having to compete with Venice would be a fine thing ... so raiding across the Adriatic is occasional, if not constant. As such, Venice has steadily been losing its wider empire - but it still holds Corfu, Naxos, part of Crete and the Ionian Islands, one of which is Zakynthos.
The mainland facing Zakynthos is the Peloponnese, with a Greek population of course, but with Ottoman overseers who cruelly suppress the Greeks. The Ottomans are by far the most powerful single entity in my world, at least in the west ... but they also suffer what can only be considered the extremes of political overstretch. The Ottoman Empire stretches into southern Russia, Balkan Europe, Persia, the Caucasus, down into the Arabian peninsula, southern Egypt, and as far east as the Barbary Coast of modern day Algeria. It is incredibly powerful, with a huge army ... but it also has innumerable enemies and there's really no way for the empire to bring all it has to bear on most of the empire. Greece, for instance, being fairly poor, is run by local Despots, most of them Greek collaborators, who pay fealty to the Emperor and who request a few Janisseries around once in awhile if the local rebellions get too difficult to manage.
The Janisseries are fanatical fighters, the nastier ones being moslem paladins, typically 6th-8th level when encountered in pairs or triads, or massive shock troop regiments which 9th-13th level leaders and usually minimum 4th level troops. They're trouble-shooters, mostly. Occasionally for a necessary war the Sultan (or more likely, the Vizier, who manages the army, pays them, and handles the empire's capital) gets a number of regiments together supported by ordinary ground troops, the kind a party would rather be fighting. Whenever things get difficult in a region, the Vizier sends a dozen or so off to manage it (with aid from the locals) ... and this means the Janisseries are perpetually on their way to a new fight.
So while the Empire could easily bulldoze over Zakynthos, or any of the other Greek territories controlled by Venice, it would be a lot of trouble and some issue somewhere else in the empire would suffer. Those territories aren't that valuable except as docking stations ... and the Ottomans are not short of docking stations in the Aegean or Ionian seas. Obviously, though, Venice pays a small fee to ensure the Ottomans can't be bothered, and everyone is happy.
The biggest threat to the Ottoman Empire isn't even in Europe, though most would probably think it's the combined power of Poland, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia and the other German states; but no. There's no such thing as any combined power there. The Hungarians serve as the buffer zone between the Ottomans and the rest of Europe, and the rest of Europe is very happy to let them do that, thank you very much. It makes Hungary into a vast military state (which would pay off for them a century later) designed to keep the Ottomans contained ... and meanwhile the rest of Europe can keep on with the process of blasting each other to pieces, which is their favorite sport. The Ottomans are due to seriously challenge that balance again until they finally get enough forces together to wade into Austria, in 1689, and right now in my world (online campaign) it is only 1651. So no worries there.
The greatest threat is a very large entity of six and a half million called the Safavid Empire, which occupies a large part of Persia, the eastern Caucasus, plus western Afghanistan and Pakistan (called Aria, Daghestan, Seistan and other names). This is a sprawling desert trading cooperative that serves as a link between east and west, as well as north and south between central Asia and the Persian Gulf. Much of the Safavid Empire is metropolitan - huge, centralized cities, very intellectual and magic rich, surrounded by vast empty areas occupied by autonomous tribesmen who are paid for their services when the state requires able soldiers. Safavid foreign policy is very simple - they are buttressed by the Ottoman Empire on their western side ... and by the incomprehensibly vast Moghul Empire on the east.
The Moghuls hold eastern Afghanistan, the Punjab and much of the Ganges River valley ... but they are particularly eastward looking. Nevertheless, the Safavids have to 'get permission' from the Moghuls before they can haul off to the west and pound the crap out of the Ottomans. They don't have Janisseries (and the Immortals from the pre-Christian Persian empire are not available to them) ... however, the Safavids have a secret weapon which comes in the form of the Thaumaturgists of Khorezm.
Khorezm was known as an independent center of learning amidst the vastness of Central Asia, so it seemed natural to me to refashion it into one of those places where wizards rule and terrify all their neighbors, despite representing only a small city state. Another such example would be Tombouctou (medieval spelling) and another would be Zanzibar. There is another in the far east, in Assam of modern India, but I confess that at the moment I don't remember its name - and I promised not to look anything up. At any rate, its there. There's another in the town of Ohrid, on the lake of the same name in Albania, which is within the Ottoman Empire ... but the Ottomans don't bother the wizards there and Ohrid graciously permits them to borrow a few things.
These are wizard 'factories,' where great amounts of magic comes from, swords, armor, potions, etcetera ... and if you the wizards that you have their interest at heart, they will make trade for such items in abundance. Primarily that means putting an army between their city and the dangerous hordes of less considerate, more barbarian peoples who tend to conglomerate in the same areas.
In the case of Khorezm, which is north of the Safavids and in the lower valley of the Amur river before it debouches into the Aral Sea, that's the Jagatai Empire, a long-standing relic from the Age of the Golden Horde. In the real world, the last of the Golden Horde, the Tatars of Russia, disappeared in the 16th century ... but my world is not the real world, and the Horde goes on. The Russians were never quite able to seize the territories across the Volga River, so the immense steppes between the Volga, the forests of Siberia and the deserts of Kara Kum remain yet occupied by the descendents of the Mongols who stormed through Asia in the 13th century. This is the Jagatai Empire, and it is populated by orcs.
Because it is fun, and because those areas of my Earth which have the lowest human population are instead occupied in larger numbers by all the humanoids of D&D, the Mongols were not humans, but were instead very tough breeds of orcs, Urokai, or however you prefer to spell it. Those tribes that preceeded the Mongols into Europe for the eight centuries before, the Huns, the Pechenegs, the Cumans and so on, were also orcs. These were mixed in with human tribes like the Goths, the Avars, the Slavs and the Magyars. The Bulgars were a half-breed mix, almost entirely human now with so little orc blood left in their veins as to be human for game terms.
The Jagatai Empire is more than two and a half million square miles, nearly the size of Australia, and so much of it is far, far from the borders that the orcs there would hardly turn a hair at the sight of characters who happened to wander into their lands. In fact, humans regularly do, traders bound from the Black Sea to China, for the Jagatai comprises most of the northern Silk Road. The orcs hardly care; they are merely another group, capable of discerning their interests against those urges to slaughter and kill their neighbors. Of course, they're not overly fond of other humanoids ... it wouldn't due to settle down and try to establish roots inside the empire. But a few interlopers can be tolerated if they are willing to pay the tax and buy local goods.
In general, I don't view racism as a strong motivating factor in my world, not as strong as religious zeal, which tends to start more wars and more universal genocides than skin color. I've written before that the power of any particular god is dependent on the number of worshipers the god has, and therefore to weaken some other god it helps to slaughter as many of that god's followers as possible. Crusades, therefore, are something that has not gone out of style. The orcs fight the Russians and the Safavids, who defend Khorezm so they can wage war against the Ottomans, who in turn carry war against the Christians of Hungary, Austria and southern Italy (when not plundering for the sake of gold). The Christians of Europe could never quite get together on what Christianity is, so the orthodox kill the sectarians, the protestants kill each other over meaningless details and everyone beats the hell out of the Jews, who manage to thrive regardless (that's because secretly they are the DM's chosen people).
What this means is that completely innocent people can be slaughtered wholesale on no other basis than their perceived belief system, which tends to make everyone a bit xenophobic, distrustful of strangers and all that. But then, this is big picture stuff. Many of the 'little people,' the ordinary citizens a player is bound to meet every day, is more concerned with being fed and avoiding the general corruption than concerns with being killed for believing the wrong thing. This is why - both in my world and in the general course of history - peoples are caught unawares when the religious army suddenly rolls in, starts pulling the people together into groups and lopping off heads. It's a surprise and a shock because - while yes, it does happen - it's rare enough that one can live one's whole life and not be part of it. Only because, as it happens, the religious soldiers are off somewhere else cutting to pieces some other group.
Thus, peace is the default position ... both in the most civilized and the least civilized areas alike. My world being immense and multi-layered, there are quite large areas where war is unlikely or - should it happen - somewhat restrained, carried out by people who jointly agree to make war. Not always true ... but mostly. If the party shows up anywhere near a battlefield, there's bound to be opportunity to escape the event and move to places where less mayhem is occurring. Or press on and get involved.
I prefer to give the party the choice, even where grand events may be sweeping along out of the party's control. A broom may seek to sweep a room clean, but the party is that bit of dust that can sneak between the straws and take refuge in a crevice. I try to run my world events, those that surround the party, as open ended as possible to give the party the option of doing that. Well, attempting to do that ... they may have to kill a few guards, avoid a patrol or two, hide in an underground cave or some such to manage it.
It's almost always assumed with players that the management has the time or the inclination to seek out remorselessly any party that has disturbed the set pattern of authority that has been established. A prince, for instance, has a friend who dies mysteriously because the party broke into the friend's house, robbed him and set off with loot. Because we mired in this fantasy plot-device where REVENGE is relentless pursued by everyone, with no regard for any actual responsibilities that must be met, the party will immediately postulate that said prince will pursue them to the end of time, obviously. The party would certainly do that, if it were their friend that died. This is in part because parties do tend to see themselves as the center of the game universe, and that having run across the party, all NPCs lives are irrevocably rewritten from the party's intervention.
I don't tend to see my world that way. If the party can commit the crime, and flee with relative immediacy, the local constabulary has limited means to pursue them. Of course, if the party hangs around, boasts of their action in the local bars, attends a party surrounding the event where they fucked over a particular NPC ... then yes, the NPC will find them and attempt a quick murder. But if the party is wisely in the next county within the day, and the next kingdom over within the week, then chances are they've gotten away with it. I can always roll some odd chance that has the party met a year later by the maid they were satisfied to merely tie up, but this is only another adventure, designed to create drama.
Real people don't have time to DROP EVERYTHING and rush after a party that happens to have gone through a particular area committing random crimes. Part of my world narrative includes a subtext that everyone in the world is very, very busy doing the things that matter to them ... and that occasionally its possible that a life-long vendetta does not serve their particular overall big picture. Parties rarely understand that.
Another overall theme in my NPCs, and thus in the founding nature of all people in my world, is that they don't know very much, and what they do know they tend to lie about. A party often assumes that individuals are bound to tell them the truth when asked a question - why would anyone lie? It's also presumed that if a local is asked a question, that local is certain to know all about local affairs, where a particular person is, etcetera, and in turn will give over that information to complete strangers without hesitation. I don't know why it is that parties so often take this sort of thing for granted. I suppose it's fall-out from living in the information age, or that we're used to dealing with strangers without hesitation continuously. I often try to explain to parties that the game takes place in another era, and another time, where things like interaction with strangers, long-distance travel, tolerance, general knowledge, reason and open friendship are difficult to find things. People do not trust people. There are many good reasons for that.
I've gotten far off the subject of the details of the geographical world, so let me return to something that is standard policy in D&D ... the inevitable borderlands perception of the world, mixed in with associations between those other D&D standards, 'wilderness' and 'civilized' lands.
Yes, wilderness exists, of course it does ... in my world, in great patches stretching across a wide variety of vegetation/climatic expanses, as wide and impenetrable as it is possible to be. There are considerable areas of my world that are simply empty of all humanoids, where there are no lost cities because no cities could ever have been built there (mostly because there is no fresh water). And I have profoundly civilized areas also, where the crawl of humanity is so dense and thick that one can't reach for the salt without bumping someone's elbow.
But in virtually every circumstance where a border exists it is because there are entities on both sides of that border maintaining it. D&D likes the trope where there's some sort of a keep, then beyond that keep there is nothing ... just empty wilderness, populated by a few convenient lairs waiting like wild plums for the taking.
There are places like that in my world, but they are very, very rare. More often, the other side of the border is occupied by peoples who are every bit as civilized as those defending this keep ... and whom the keep would rather not encourage into an all-out war by having random parties do funtime raids into enemy territory. That's not to say the party couldn't get away with it ... only that they might be surprised to find there aren't 60 or 70 orcs just beyond that 20-mile forest, but 5,000 or 20,000, organized into farm communities, educated priesthoods and magic schools, quite able to find criminals in their local neighborhoods, etc.
This is, of course, not in keeping with Convenience Store Adventuring as it is usually shelf-stocked in most modules or game worlds. I can't really help that. I've never been quite able to view my world as an X.P. vending machine, where the party pumps quarters into the traditional slot and waits for the appropriate adventure to pop out at the bottom, ready for easy consumption. I've tried hard to build up a world that encourages the players to involve themselves in the process, to live in the world, to see the adventure as more than plugging and taking, but as a design problem. It isn't so much what you seize from my world, it is where and how you seek to establish yourself and in turn change my world to suit your needs.
To enable that, I've manufactured a world that has it in all the recognizable parts of the one the players know - there's a France, a Scandinavia, a Near East, an India, a tropical paradise, a desert scape, a deep and impenetrable forest and a deep and impenetrable jungle. It has all the places where a party could wish to go, it has all the places where a party could wish to occupy and control ... with the recognition that others have already done that, and that if the party wants something, anything, they will have to wrest control of it from someone else's cold dead fingers.
Thus the complex ideal I have in my head of what motivates the Greeks who live on the island of Zakynthos, how they view the Venetians who occupy the island, how they view the Turks who would certainly occupy the island if the Venetians left. I have in my mind how difficult it would be for the Turks to wrest the island from the Venetians, and in turn how difficult it would be for a party to do likewise, recognizing that once they took it from the Venetians, they would in turn have to deal with the Turks themselves. How would that be done? Surely there would be a means for a party to become the despotic rulers of the island of Zakynthos under Turkish authority, just like the other Greek despotic rulers that already control the mainland. Perhaps there is a way to gather the various despotic rulers together and throw the Turkish authority completely free of the Pelopponese ... recognizing that it would mean making allies or enemies of others who would be viewing those same areas, the Spanish, the Venetians, the Ragusans or the Genoese.
As Dylan said, you've gotta serve somebody. My world is built on that principle, not because I wished it to be so, but because it is so. You always have to serve somebody, because somebody always wants what you have ... and if they're ready to pile enough somebodies together to threaten you, you're going to have to make a deal with them or pile up some somebodies of your own. And so it goes.
There are those who describe something in D&D called an "end game," associated with a party when it gets to a certain level and gains followers. I never heard that term until the internet. It's complete bollucks. It's vending machine gaming. It's myopic. It's the product of flat-designed worlds.
I hope I've given some demonstration of how my world isn't like that.